(RE)UNION 5 OUT OF 10 – Read chapter 8 of (re)union
Why did Jesus cry out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did God turn away from Jesus during his crucifixion? Did the Father pour out his wrath on the Son in order to satisfy his own need for justice? Was that act of justice necessary for God to show us mercy?
Christians have always agreed that Jesus “died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In one of my favourite Bible passages, the apostle Paul says:
He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
These are amazing words. God removed the guilt of our sins by nailing the record of our crime to the cross! We are really and truly forgiven and “free from accusation” (Colossians 1:22).
In another of my favourite Bible passages (I have a lot of favourite Bible passages!), the apostle Paul says:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
Three things I’ll highlight:
- In Christ we are not just declared justified (righteous), we are made righteous. We are now part of the new creation, “without blemish” (Colossians 1:22). Our justification is not just a “legal fiction” wherein God declares us innocent even though we are still the same sinners on the inside. Martin Luther is rumoured to have said that justification makes Christians like “snow covered dung” – the same on the inside, but covered with the righteousness of Christ on the outside for God to look upon. Anabaptists have tended instead to stress the actual inner change of heart that was promised to come with the New Covenant (e.g., Ezekiel 36:26), and that is pictured through Jesus’ idea of new birth and new creation (e.g., John 3). In our understanding, Christians may still be encased in the “dung” of our sinful flesh, but on the inside, our spirits, our true selves, are pure and righteous and new!
- The reconciliation of salvation is always described in the Bible as us being reconciled to God, and never the other way around. We are the ones who need the intervention of Christ to help us turn back to God. He is already reaching out to us in love (John 3:16).
- The Great Exchange: Jesus took our sin onto himself, actually becoming our sin, and in exchange we receive and actually become the very righteousness of God!
There is nothing like this in any other religion. This is pure grace: the powerful opposite of what religion offers… either the harsh judgement of a personal God or the mechanistic fallout of cold karma. (Feel free to pause from reading this at any time to simply pray and thank God for his amazing grace.)
This amazing good news message answers so many questions, and raises so many others. For instance, exactly how does this great exchange work? How does Jesus become sin for us? And how do we become the righteousness of God?
In the process of asking these kinds of questions, some theologians have argued that the primary problem separating us from God has never just been our sin but also God’s wrath – and the cross is the simultaneous solution to both. On the cross, Jesus was able to remove our sin and remove God’s wrath, by taking both upon himself. This theory of how the crucifixion of Christ saves us is called “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” (or “PSA”). I have already walked through my best understanding of and objection to this atonement theory in this blog post – understanding atonement (see that here) – and I encourage you to read it as a good follow up to this post.
On Sunday we walked through “The Gospel in Chairs” illustration (see that here) and the PSA theory is represented in the first of the two walkthroughs. The emphasis in this theory is less on Jesus saving us from our sin, and more on Jesus saving us from God’s wrath. But it seems to me that Jesus came to change our heart toward God, rather than change God’s heart toward us.
One of today’s most influential Calvinist thinkers, and someone I’ve enjoyed learning from over the years, is John Piper. He represents this more Reformed theological position when he says:
“We need to ponder this: The trigger of the flamethrower of God’s omnipotent fury is about to be pulled, and as it’s pulled, Christ steps between us and the flamethrower and he absorbs every bit of it on himself and he dies because of it, and we don’t feel that heat at all.”
~ John Piper (Ask Pastor John, Episode 272)
If Jesus has anything to say about it, this should not be our picture of our Heavenly Father. I have a great amount of respect for John Piper, however I also have a growing list of objections to this idea of Jesus being our asbestos suit against the white hot flame of God’s righteous wrath. For now I’ll just share three:
- I can’t find clear unambiguous support for this concept in the Bible. It certainly is not the way the gospel is preached by the early church as recorded in the book of Acts.
- It reframes the gospel to suggest that Jesus came to rescue us, not from sin or from Satan (which the Bible does say), but from God (which the Bible does not say).
- It makes salvation as reconciliation a matter of God needing to be reconciled to us. Which is the opposite of what the Bible says.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talks about atonement theories and concludes:
The one most people have heard is the one I mentioned before–the one about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory. If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense.
(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
So now back to our original question: Why did Jesus cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some options include:
- God turned his back on Jesus because of the sin Jesus became.
- God turned his back on Jesus because of the sin Jesus became AND because God then had to pour out his wrath upon Jesus.
- Jesus was genuinely expressing how he felt in the middle of his suffering (which itself was a form of suffering in solidarity with us). Jesus became sin, which means he felt all the feels of sin, including abandonment by God.
I used to believe #2 without question, but as I’ve studied more I have joined a growing number of Christians, pastors, and scholars who find it to be the least biblically supportable option. I’m open to #1 still and also want to learn more about #3. One clue that leans me toward this third option is that Jesus’ words seem to be drawn exactly from the opening verse of Psalm 22, where David writes about his own suffering:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
This is how David began his psalm of anguish. He felt like God didn’t care. That was a central part of his pain. But later in that same psalm David comes to the conclusion that God has in reality always been there for him, even if David didn’t always feel it. He says:
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
This mirrors the emotional journey of Jesus on the cross, who cries “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me” at one point, but then ends his suffering with these words:
“Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.”
EXTRA NOTES FOR CHAPTER 8
Q & EH?
- Sometimes people say they don’t believe in sin. This seems out of touch with the state of the word today, and throughout history. Of all the teachings of Jesus, the idea of “sin” is the most empirically verifiable. Evidence for this is all around us. Even people who believe in sin often don’t like the word or how it is used in religious contexts. What is your emotional reaction to the word “sin”? What are some synonyms that might help us be more clear about this important reality?
- Sin is a corrosive agent that erodes the love bond between relationships. Sin is a disease that infects relational closeness, replacing genuine other-centred love with growing, malignant self-interest coupled with creative excuses to justify our apathy toward others. As this chapter says, “Sin is a relationship disrupter. It separates people, divides groups, and fractures our own minds.” How have you experienced the power of sin in your own life and/or in the lives of others?
- Nearly 400 years before the birth of Jesus, Plato wrote a treatise on government called The Republic. At one point Plato addresses what he thinks would happen if a truly righteous and perfect man were ever to enter this world. He hypothesizes that our response would be complete rejection, perhaps out of fear or misunderstanding. That just man, wrote Plato, “will be scourged, racked, bound. He will have his eyes burned out. And at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled.” Why do you think people rejected Jesus, our “Adam 2.0”?
- Our salvation includes being “justified” (“just-as-if-I’d” never sinned) as a gift of grace, received by faith. How is this idea different from how salvation is obtained in other religious systems?
- Read: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 & 1 John 1:8-9.
- Think: If we pretend we are “fine,” we won’t want to receive the forgiveness God is offering us. But when we confess our sin, we are not only forgiven, we are also purified.
- Meditate: God is offering me his own righteousness.
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